A life without pain is not just fantasy; it is possible. Some people are born with a very rare mutation to gene SCN9A, which means that they can feel no pain. No fear of the dentist’s drill, even without anaesthetic; no fear of illness or injury. What is there not to like? So if your genes could be manipulated so you never feel pain again, would you take up the offer?
The few people who have had this rare condition turn out not to be so lucky, after all. As children, they are normally regarded as being retarded because they appear to be incapable of learning from mistakes which most people would find very painful. And they have an unfortunate habit of dying young, normally doing something extremely dangerous.
If you have doubts about the life without pain, let me make you another offer instead. Would you like to live a life free from negative emotions? At a stroke, wave goodbye to anxiety, guilt, anger, regret, shame, grief, confusion, or pessimism. This offer, like the offer of the pain-free life, turns out to be a poisoned chalice.
In practice, negative emotions serve a positive purpose. Like pain, they are a way of signalling that something is wrong and we need to take action. In limited doses both pain and negative emotions are very helpful learning mechanisms. In large doses they are unhelpful, and even life threatening: seek professional help.
Three examples will show the value of negative emotions:
- Would you like to work for a boss who never felt any shame, regret, confusion, or anxiety? Such a boss would probably be a psychopath who would do anything to get his (or her) way; they would be so convinced of their own genius that they will set a direction without understanding or caring about the consequences. They might succeed as politicians.
- Anxiety and pessimism are useful, in moderation, in helping us prepare for the future. If we never had any pessimism we would live in a world of hope, convinced that we will always turn out lucky. But experience shows that hope is not a method and luck is not a strategy. Pessimism means we avoid taking undue risks; anxiety means that we take time and effort to prepare properly for that big presentation. Too much anxiety and pessimism means we become paralysed with inaction.
- Anger appears to be totally dysfunctional, until you think of a world with no anger. Anger is the fuel that fights injustice and rights all wrongs: there would have been no civil rights movement in the USA unless people got angry about injustice and decided to fight it.
A good way to spend some idle time waiting for the train is to think about every negative emotion and work out why how it might help. The clue to finding the positive purpose in a negative emotion is to think about a world or a life without that emotion: it turns out that evolution has given us negative emotions for very good reasons.
Deal with negative emotions in the same way you deal with pain. Do not try to run away or ignore pain or negative emotions: the chances are that it will get worse. The pain and negativity is trying to tell you something is wrong. Listen to what you are being told and work out how you should respond. Lean into adversity, act on it, and learn from it. For instance, if you are anxious about an event, work out why and deal with it: do some more preparation, get some more help, work with the organisers to reshape the event so it works better. Anxiety is your early warning system, and it is trying to help you.
A life with no pain and no negative emotions turns out to be closer to hell than to heaven. We have to accept that life is led in a kaleidoscope of colours and patterns, which will have their fair share of joy and sorrow, success, and setbacks. Each of us is the hero of our own life movie. If you live life in full technicolor, enjoying the ups and downs, and with the record button on, that is a good start. Whatever your journey is, enjoy it.